Understanding Romans 10:17 by Pastor John Samson
â€œSo faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.â€ Romans 10:17
As most of my readers know, I did not always embrace the reformed faith. For the first 20 years of my Christian walk I was fairly convinced of synergistic theology, though I would recoil at the idea of labeling it as such. In my mind, I just believed the Bible, or so I thought.
I was recently having a discussion with a gentleman through e-mail and he was lamenting the fact that I no longer believed as he does (he is a synergist). He said my problem was that I gave false teaching a chance to wreak havoc in my soul by exposing myself to it â€“ by listening to it. He then wrote â€œFaith comes by hearing. If you keep hearing something you start to believe it.â€ He thinks of reformed theology as falsehood, and so using this verse (Romans 10:17), was seeking to show the source of my error, namely that I should never have listened to reformed theology.
Leaving the discussion about reformed theology aside, is what he wrote correct? Does hearing something mean that you will believe it? I would suggest not, and go further to say that his view of Scripture is incredibly low to say such a thing. The obvious implication of his words is the concept that we believe anything we hear. But is that true? I have heard many things in life that I do not believe. Some people in England believe Manchester United are the greatest soccer team in the land, when it is clear that this title belongs to Liverpool alone. I could hear someone talk of the Manchester team in such glowing terms all day and all night for a week, and never believe the bald faced satanic lie. I jest, of course (slightly anyway - after all the Manchester team are called "The Red Devils") - but the point is still a valid one. We do not believe everything we hear - even something we hear repeatedly. It is God Himself who gives the gift of saving faith (Ephesians 2:8,9) - it is not the product of our natural humanity, however many times a person hears the Gospel preached.
Certainly hearing a thing many times can have great influence. A child brought up in a home filled with anti-semitism can certainly be influenced to the point where they take on a similar mind set â€“ but such is the thinking of a child who usually accepts the teaching of his parents uncritically. As the child grows, he learns to evaluate what he hears and check out facts and figures and arguments to see if the claims made are true. This is one of the features of becoming an adult â€“ the ability to think for oneself.
The Romans 10:17 verse is wonderfully true. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. However it is important to understand what it is saying, and also what it is not saying. It is not saying that everyone who hears anything will believe it. Neither is it saying that everyone who hears the word of God will believe it. The verse does not say that; nor is it true in our experience today; and neither was it the experience of the apostles.
Acts 13:48-51 tells us â€œAnd when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium.â€
All the elect believed the word of God when they heard it â€œas many as were appointed to eternal life believedâ€ but some who heard the exact same message rose up in opposition to it and stirred up persecution against the proclaimers of the Gospel.
But lets suppose the gentleman's understanding was true. If it was the case that people will always believe what they hear, the most loving thing we could do for people would be to kidnap them, lock them in a room with some sound speakers, and then proclaim the word of God to them hour upon hour, and then, hey presto - after some time, they will all become Christians. Then we can let them out of the room, and send them out to reach others in the same way in order to fulfill the Great Commission. But such would be the actions of a cult, not the work of a Christian group at all. If this was how we were to â€œreach outâ€ to others, â€œthere would be no need for prayer, for persuasion, or for the Holy Spirit.... the resulting conviction would be the result of mere brainwashing, and the profession of faith a mere parroting of what has been heard, similar to how an insane person might mindlessly mutter some of the phrases that he overhears or that are fed to him by others. There would be no genuine belief in the promises of God, but the conviction would serve only as the lifeless and thoughtless replacement to the person's previous beliefs that have now been forcibly short-circuited by the process. The person might feel convinced, but there can be no power and no salvation in this kind of "faith."â€ (Vincent Cheung) Locking people up and force-feeding them the Gospel is certainly not the way God calls us to evangelize. Yet this would be the necessary implication of the gentlemanâ€™s understanding and view of Romans 10:17.
So how do we determine the correct understanding of this verse, or any verse for that matter. Some say just pray and God will show you the correct interpretation. I believe in prayer very much, but the problem with that is that people pray and see different things in the verse, sometimes even contradictory things. Contradiction is not the hallmark or truth but of error. The problem is not the Holy Spiritâ€™s inability to guide. God forbid! The problem is our human depravity; we do not always think correctly about God and truth and need help to correctly understand the word. This is true for all of us. Theologians call this the noetic effects of sin. In order to combat this, Paul told Timothy to diligently study the word in order to rightly interpret it (2 Tim. 2:15). Earlier in that same chapter Paul exhorted Timothy to think through what he was teaching, even though he knew it is God who is the ultimate source of revelation. 2 Tim. 2:7 â€œThink over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.â€
How can someone be sure of the correct interpretation of Romans 10:17? One of the keys â€“ and as I understand it, the most important key to correct interpretation is to know the context. Context tells us what the subject is, what the background was, who was writing, who were the recipients, and so on and so forth. As I hear something being taught, or hear a verse being quoted in support of an argument, my mind naturally thinks of the immediate context of the verse. I train myself to mentally go through this process. This really helps me determine if what I am hearing is true. It helps me to ask questions such as â€œwhat was the original purpose of the passage? What was the author seeking to achieve in the passage being quoted?â€ Often times this process alone has saved me from many a misguided idea. The problem with this is that we all have our blind spots. It takes vigilance to be on guard for error. The most dangerous thing is to never ask questions concerning context, for this is the sure way to error. This is exactly what the cults do â€“ lifting verses out of their setting to seek to deny the Deity of Christ, for example.
So back to the verse: what was the context of Romans 10:17? Well, Romans 10:17 is part of a larger context that starts around Romans 8:28 and goes through to the end of Romans 11, where Paul is teaching about Godâ€™s Sovereignty in election and how it relates to Israel. Romans 9 deals with Godâ€™s Sovereignty in election, Romans 10 discusses the means whereby Godâ€™s electing â€œendsâ€ are achieved, namely the preaching of the Gospel. That is the context. The message of Romans 10:17 is clear. Though God is the One who chooses people according to His amazing mercy (Romans 9), God has chosen to do this through the means of the preached word of God. The elect come to faith through of the heralding of the Gospel.
Romans 10: 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, â€œHow beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!â€ 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, â€œLord, who has believed what he has heard from us?â€ 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
The verse is not teaching us that one exposure to falsehood will cause us to believe it. That is not what the text is saying at all. No, the verse is teaching us that the way Godâ€™s elect people come to believe the gospel is through the preached word of Christ. Faith comes through the means of people hearing the word of God. God uses the means of preaching to bring people to faith. Not everyone who hears of Christ believes in him, as verse 16 makes clear, but no one believes in Christ without first hearing of Him. The answer to the rhetorical question, "And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" is that, they will not. The way faith comes is through hearing the message of Christ in the mouth of the preacher. What a high calling it is to proclaim God's word in this way. It is God's means for His elect sheep to come to faith in Christ. There is not an alternative means, so preacher, preach the Gospel!
Let me quote from the Prince of Preachers, C. H. Spurgeon on this theme: "I believe that God will save his own elect, and I also believe that, if I do not preach the gospel, the blood of men will be laid at my door." In another setting he said, â€œOur Savior has bidden us to preach the gospel to every creature; he has not said, â€œPreach it only to the elect;â€ and though that might seem to be the most logical thing for us to do, yet, since he has not been pleased to stamp the elect in their foreheads, or to put any distinctive mark upon them, it would be an impossible task for us to perform; whereas, when we preach the gospel to every creature, the gospel makes its own division, and Christâ€™s sheep hear his voice, and follow him.â€
Amen and amen! I write this short article as an encouragement to us to become more and more familiar with the Bible as a whole. The fact is - we all will get better at interpreting the Bible, the more we become familiar with the contents of the Bible. Let us be reading it constantly, and seek to always remember the context of the verses we hear being quoted. This discipline alone will keep us from many an error. Yet even though we exercise diligence in this, our confidence of remaining true to the faith does not rest in our wits or ability to interpret correctly, but in Godâ€™s Sovereign grace and mercy to keep us from deception.
Matthew 24 speaks of an end time deception on such a grand scale that â€œif it were possible, even the elect would be deceived.â€ Thank God, it is indeed impossible for the elect to be deceived â€“ though all of us are called to think and to pray and to ask God to keep us in His hand - the elect will not be deceived, because God Sovereignly brings them out of, or keeps them from deception. Hallelujah!